Much Ado About Nothing by Shit-faced Shakespeare, at the Spider House, Austin, Texas. December 9, 2016
Reviewed by Michael Saenger, Southwestern University
Any production that takes place in a bar (attendees were carded) and calls itself “Shit-faced Shakespeare” is clearly not exactly meant to be taken seriously. But the last time I attended this venue, and this team, they performed the thinnest shreds of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and reveled in the chaos inflicted upon the show by a truly drunk actor. In this version, the disruptive actor was more whimsical than chaotic, more tipsy than drunk, and the play held on to some of its seriousness. Perhaps in part because Much Ado has trouble in it that is nowhere to be found in Midsummer, there were times when this performance had the air of a maudlin drunk grabbing your arm in a bar, and being a little more honest than you’d expect about his reasons for being there. In fact, the performance often felt less like a truly mad Shakespeare performance, and more like an academic party game, a kind of silly dance around a relatively serious comedy. Amid all the scenes that were cut, the performance kept the disturbing denunciation of Hero at her wedding, one of Shakespeare’s most violent portrayals of the dangers of misogyny. Rebecca Pearcy as Beatrice was oddly at home in this hybrid show, moving from wild humor to genuine courage, just as she does in the actual (gasp!) play Shakespeare wrote.
In this rowdy show, an entertaining emcee, Isto Barton, sets the rules: six actors are to perform something resembling Much Ado About Nothing, and one of them is to be inebriated, plastered, or in Shakespeare’s idiom, out of his five wits. As befits a bar room show, the audience are vulnerable to forcible volunteerism–one woman gets a trumpet to (ahem) blow, and another a small gong to, well, bang. Each is designed to indicate that the inebriated actor should again imbibe a can of (you may shiver here in sympathy) Lone Star beer.
This is a fun show. The actors seem game for the good-natured fun of the evening, and the play itself was trimmed fairly well. Most of the actors played the straight foils to drunken silliness, with Becky Musser sternly enforcing parental propriety, and Brett Milanowski as a Don John who was more of a mustache-twirler than a genuine threat.
The sloshed one? That was Kristofer Atkins, as Claudio. Barton patrolled the margin of the stage, lest poor Claudio would tumble off, but I for one never feared he would. He hopped and ambled, around the stage and in an out of his role, often breaking character to explain what he or another character had said–accurately, I might add–or what exactly formed the bond between him and Benedick–they comforted each other in the wars, one learns, and had agreed not to talk about it. That’s funny, of course, but it’s not that far off, as an explanation of the peculiar intimacy that binds Shakespeare’s young ladies’ men. It’s the subtext to a lot of the macho puffery.
Shit-Faced Shakespeare is becoming, as one is wont to say, a thing. Franchises are currently operating not just in Austin but also in Boston, Atlanta and Minneapolis/St. Paul. It’s a franchise. Dinner theater without the dinner? Perhaps, but I for one appreciated the fact that the show makes no pretensions of advancing the flag of Shakespeare through intoxication. It was more about simply having fun, which, lest we forget, is what the Bard was up to in the first place.